Streaming: the best films about artificial intelligence and robots

A century of sci-fi films that chart our changing attitudes to AI – from Fritz Lang to Finch

“Old-fashioned” is generally not a term you want to hear applied to science fiction, a genre from which one tends to expect the futuristic and unfamiliar. But old-fashioned is very much how Finch (Apple TV+) feels, and not just because of the reassuring elder-statesman presence of Tom Hanks in the title role: a post-apocalyptic drama built from the scraps of a thousand others before it, it’s about as nostalgically cuddly as a vision of a barren, desolate future can be. Hanks is seemingly the last surviving human on the planet; an inventor, he assembles an AI robot (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones) to mind his adorable dog when he’s gone. Awww.

The narrative direction of the film, previously a more downbeat enterprise, was altered to be more optimistic when the global pandemic struck. Perhaps Finch’s creation, a throwback to the rickety robot aesthetics of 1980s kids’ favourite Short Circuit, was always intended to be a hi-tech pet-sitter: either way, in the long history of cinema’s fascination with artificial intelligence (AI), rarely has the technology been used to such wholesome ends.

Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Psychotic?: Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photograph: Allstar/Mgm

No matter how many technological boundaries we break, the concept of AI remains as intriguing and disorienting as it was when Fritz Lang’s still-dazzling expressionist spectacle Metropolis (Mubi) – in which a female robot initially created as a romantic proxy becomes a dystopian overlord – was made almost a century ago.

On screen, the idea has consistently adapted to the fears of the age. In the 60s, sentient computer systems weighed heavily on filmmakers’ minds: in Jean-Luc Godard’s sleek sci-fi noir Alphaville (BFI Player), the computer Alpha 60 dictates human behaviour in Orwellian fashion; in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Amazon), HAL 9000’s murderous preying on his human underlings seems less clinically power-driven and more plain psychotic. By the time a malevolent computer impregnated Julie Christie in 1977’s compellingly seamy Demon Seed (free on Plex), that wave of sinister technophobia reached its zenith.

Daryl Hannah as replicant Pris in Blade Runner (1982).
Daryl Hannah as replicant Pris in Blade Runner (1982) Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

By the Reagan era, the idea of humanoid robots controlling the peace was a little more palatable, even if Paul Verhoeven’s wickedly funny RoboCop (Apple TV) and James Cameron’s The Terminator (Rakuten TV) retained a sly anti-authoritarian streak. The more solemnly sinister view of human-replicant blurring in Blade Runner (Apple TV) was less immediately popular. By the turn of the millennium, meanwhile, AI took on a sweeter glow: both Brad Bird’s lovely animation The Iron Giant (Netflix), in which a robot is a boy’s best friend, and Steven Spielberg’s ravishing A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Apple TV), which gave us androids as yearning Pinocchio figures, did some image clean-up for the idea.

Lately, sci-fi has been doing its best to normalise human-robot relationships. Platonically so, in the case of the amiable, oddball heist romp Robot & Frank (Now TV), though AI romance has become its own evolving sub-genre – see the eerily persuasive bond between Joaquin Phoenix’s loner and Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied, Siri-style virtual PA in Her (Amazon) or, most recently, the delightful German romcom I’m Your Man (Curzon), where Dan Stevens’ customised android dreamboat isn’t too good to be true, just too perfect to be practical.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2015)
Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2015). Photograph: Alamy/Allstar

Still, Alex Garland’s sinuous, brilliant Ex Machina (Amazon), built around Alicia Vikander’s seemingly vulnerable robo-woman, strikes a cautionary note, echoed by the false-memory meditations of the controversial Austro-German parable The Trouble With Being Born (more on that in a few weeks, when Mubi releases it), and the fascinating, expansive and decidedly anxious Norwegian documentary iHuman (Google Play). The future, hopefully, is some way off yet.

Also new on streaming and DVD

Ann Skelly in Rose Plays Julie.
Ann Skelly in Rose Plays Julie. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Rose Plays Julie
(New Wave Films)
Still among the most interesting voices in British independent film, directors Christine Lawlor and Joe Molloy serve up an inspired twist on an age-old melodramatic premise – an adoptee’s sense of self shifts upon seeking her birth parents – in this whispery, cracked-glass psychodrama.

The Last Letter from Your Lover
Augustine Frizzell, the director behind 2018’s spiky girls-gone-wild comedy Never Goin’ Back, is an unlikely fit for a Jojo Moyes adaptation, but she makes this timeline-crossing romance a sticky-schmaltzy pleasure – exquisitely shot and costumed, with real chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Callum Turner.

The Outsiders: The Complete Novel
Francis Ford Coppola’s longer director’s cut of his earnestly affecting 1983 coming-of-age drama is restored for DVD and Blu-ray, with the original cut included: not altogether embraced on release, it’s aged rather well, with an honest depiction of social inequality and prejudice balancing its period nostalgia.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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